Scores of prisoners in Haiti’s penitentiaries have died this year as the country’s penal institutions have been gutted by corruption, gang violence, and mismanagement.
The most recent reports came in early September when four inmates were reported dead within two days at Jacmel prison in southern Haiti. They most likely died from malnutrition, respiratory difficulties, and starvation, according to the Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste. But it is likely that a number of other prisoners have died since.
Local human rights organizations have been forced to beg nearby families to share food with the prison, while agents of the National Penitentiary Administration asked local farmers for fruit for the prisoners, reported the newspaper.
Jacmel is not the only Haitian prison with problems providing basic necessities to prisoners. At least eight prisoners died in Les Cayes National Penitentiary in the southwest of the country after the prison ran out of food two months ago, reported the Associated Press. In June, video footage posted on Twitter showed malnourished and emaciated prisoners gathering around a person who had collapsed.
Prisoners across the country are malnourished, receive little to no time outdoors or for recreation, and are denied visitors, Marie Yolène Gilles, executive director of Fondasyon je Klerk, a Haitian human rights organization, told InSight Crime. While the official number of prison deaths is unclear, Gilles said that conditions have led to at least 41 deaths in the past two months.
And approximately 100 deaths have been recorded in 2022, Gédéon Jean, executive director at the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (Centre d’analyse et de recherche en droits de l’homme – CARDH), told InSight Crime.
Haitian prisons house a wide range of detainees, many of whom committed misdemeanors, like petty theft or minor disputes, or are imprisoned arbitrarily for protesting, Jean said. The country’s prisons also hold serious criminals. Violent gang members like Joly Germine, alias “Yonyon,” a leader of Haitian gang 400 Mawozo, and Arnel Joseph, previously one of Haiti’s most wanted criminals, have spent years in Haitian prisons.
“Generally all prisoners regardless of their offense or accusation are kept in the same cells together. They are not divided by severity of their offense,” Michelle Karshan, co-founder and vice president of NGO Health Through Walls, told InSight Crime.
According to a brief submitted to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHCR) and obtained by InSight Crime, gun battles inside Haiti’s prisons demonstrate the corruption of prison guards and correctional officers. The brief notes that national prisons often “suffer shortages of correction officers on duty or at their post,” putting prisoners and other staff in danger.
Recently, the Haitian government has been increasingly detaining criminal deportees from the United States upon arrival in Haiti. Haitian police have demanded thousands of dollars from prisoners’ families for their release, Karshan told InSight Crime.
Patrick Julney, who has lived in the United States since he was a toddler, is one such prisoner. He was deported to Haiti in June 2022 and after his arrival, guards demanded $6,000 from his wife for his release, according to local news website NorthJersey.com. As of September 17, Julney is still detained in the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince.
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Several factors have contributed to the chronic food shortages and rising deaths in Haiti’s prisons.
A crumbling judicial system has exacerbated problems. In June and July, gangs invaded courthouses in Port-au-Prince, destroying records and evidence. Events like these make prisoners’ chances of receiving a fair trial extremely slim and produce overcrowding in the country’s prisons.
Overcrowded prisons have worsened the food shortage. Those arrested are routinely imprisoned for several years before trial. They are “vulnerable to being lost in the system, being held without files of any kind to signal their presence in prison,” according to the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (Réseau National de Défense des Droits Humains – RNDDH).
As of May 2021, Haiti’s prison population was approximately 11,580, with just 2,071 prisoners sentenced for crimes, according to the brief submitted to the UNHCR. With 82 percent of prisoners remaining on pre-trial detention, prisons are holding more than three times their intended capacity.
Attempts to reduce overcrowding leads to detainees often being kept in police station holding cells for prolonged periods, according to Karshan. Detainees are rarely fed and family or friends are left to provide for them, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). Yet general insecurity in the country makes this an almost impossible task. Family members who would be able to bring detainees food and medicine are unable to travel due to gang violence and frequent protests across the country.
Some food can be obtained inside prisons but purchasing it is difficult, according to Karshan. Food is sold at an inflated price and prisoners must pay cash, a difficulty considering family members can rarely reach them. Families can transfer money to gangs that run the prisons but fees are levied before prisoners receive that money, she explained.
And corruption takes its toll on those who try to help. For example, InSight Crime learned that Health through Walls and other non-governmental organizations imported food into Haiti for prisoners but were forced to pay tens of thousands of dollars to the government for the supplies to be allowed in.
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